Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Chaim Machlev started tattooing in 2012.
At 33 years old, he moved to Berlin, Germany where he dedicated himself to tattooing.
What do you recall about the first tattoos you did as a tattooer?
My first tattoo was on a friend that was kind enough to let me practice on her doing a little sea star that looked actually pretty good.
My second tattoo was horrible actually. It is funny to talk about the first approach to tattooing because when it comes to reality and you hold your tattoo machine for the first time in your hand and you aim it towards someone, you don’t really know where to gain the confidence to actually do it, so you really find yourself trusting just your instincts. And those instincts become habits over time.
Tell us a bit about your background!
I had a pretty normal childhood; I was
not a popular child at all and spent most of my childhood in front of my computer. I never had any artistic background, never created
art besides playing a guitar as a hobby and for sure nothing that has to do with drawing/tattooing. In fact I wasn’t attracted to tattoos before I started to think about getting one, which I can’t really explain why it happened.
I think that there is a stage in life in which
everyone is thinking about getting a tattoo, and this is what also makes me feel sometimes that we humans are in our natural state when we are tattooed. The reasons can vary, but it is just happening and most of us in the western world have unfortunately some sort of a pattern in our head where we connected tattoos to. And in that pattern to most of the people there is negative stuff inside as well.
Tattooing in a lot of social circles gets connected with drugs, crime, and many other negative aspects. In my home country it’s like that, but I have to say that currently there is a huge movement of tattooed people in Tel Aviv which is really opening people’s eyes to it.
When you get your first tattoo you no longer have those misconceptions, as you understand the beauty of deciding to change your body and let someone do it. Than the distance to get another tattoo is shorter and this is exactly the reason that many non-tattooed people thinks that tattooing is addictive.
When you got your first tattoo and how impacted you?
I got my first tattoo 7 year ago by Avi Vanunu in Psycho Studio in Tel Aviv and it was for me one of the strongest impacts of my life, as I found the procedure super spiritual and life changing. I still try to understand it, but I guess that when I lost the negative contact towards tattooing which I had, I lost a lot of negative prejudgments that I had inside me towards other stuff that society
choose to see as something wrong or unacceptable. This really led me to the point in life to understand that something has to be done and I couldn’t stop thinking about tattoos. I started to see it in my dreams, every person that I saw I thought about lines that goes through their body and how interesting could it be to actually be a tattooer that decide which lines flows better for an individual body, and dedicate your life to live the experience of changing
people’s body as a routine. Back then I was a project manager in an IT company, in charge of 22 workers and had a pretty comfortable life from the materialistic point of view. The thoughts about tattoos could not let me go and I decided to get another tattoo just to understand better the process.. After the second tattoo it was clear that some action need to be done and I left to the desert to make a decision.
Whoever was in the desert knows that you could not
run away from your own thoughts; there is something about the endless horizon, the sand and yourself alone that could bring the spirituality even into an atheist, and makes him face the truth and confront. And there after 5 days alone I decided to dedicate my life to that philosophical-spiritual point of understanding what is so special about tattoos, and decided to be a tattoo artist.
Every second that I thought about being a tattoo artist I had a shiver running down my spine, which taught me that this is the right thing to do. I decided to move to Berlin. I was never there before, but I had a good feeling about the place and learning how to be a tattoo artist there seemed more realistic than in Israel. I knew that the hard part will be to leave all behind, and thought that if it wouldn’t work out in Berlin I will just continue to the next destination and it wouldn’t be as hard as leaving Tel Aviv would’ve been. I sold everything I ever had and landed in Berlin in the search for the opportunity of the open door… Landing in Berlin was easy. Finding a place to live
and a shop that will take me was very hard. I was couch-surfing for 3 months and after finding a place to live, I started looking for a shop that will open the door for me. I run into so many different people and artists but most of their answers were negative. I didn’t have any portfolio to show and no experience in drawing, just a lot of motivation and a lot of hope. Finally, I found a place that opened the door of opportunity for me and allowing me to have a little room in the back and practice on punks that didn’t care how their tattoos will look. I cleaned the place in a reward of it. I guess that they didn’t really believe that I will succeed as a tattooist but they really couldn’t
resist the motivation I showed.
After 2 months of practice I started to feel more and more secure with my tattoo machines and started to get costumers. I remember that I felt like connected to some ancient subconscious that was living in me for many years and I still get connected to that point whenever I
hold my machines and get filled with a warm feeling inside. I always had a little problem tattooing in front of people, as I think that this is a very intimate process and the experience of getting tattooed raise a lot of feelings to the tattooed person in a very interesting levels: pain, happiness, satisfaction, trust, hope, love, hate; a lot of these feelings are just surrounding and I guess in order to have this experience as good as possible it has to be as intimate as possible. This is why it is hard for me to go to conventions and to tattoo in front of people.
Tell us a bit about your creative process!
I make my designs according to the body structure of my clients. I would never make a sketch before, because it could look pretty nice on the paper but wouldn’t fit the body the way I visualized it. My studio is located in Berlin and it is private which means that there is just one person at the time there. I don’t take walk-ins and I tattoo one person a day. I think that it’s impossible to tattoo more than one person a day as a tattoo artist that tries to go through a spiritual experience together with the client and to create something positive out of it from the psychological aspect as well as from the creation aspect.
If the client I have in front of me is an open minded person, I create something more individual for him and the creations that I feel the most comfortable with and I love the most are the ones that I created on people that actually came without any idea of what they want to get but with a strong will to get tattooed by me. I do a lot of free hand with my tattoo designs, most of the lines art design, and the process of designing is sometimes longer than the tattooing process itself. Sometimes, it’s very hard to find the right lines that float through the body, especially when we talk about geometric tattoo designs. Our body is not symmetric and to try to put a symmetric design on a non symmetric object most of the time ends with it looking like a sticker. If you choose to deal with geometric designs it has to be the right size, the right place and the right movement. Otherwise it is simply not working. I experiment a lot, like on a daily base, which is a bit risky when comes to a non reversible form of art, but I guess that it is the only way to develop your own style as an artist, and create something individual daily.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
I use black as the main color for my tattoos simply because I think that it is the only color that will look timeless on a timeless design. I also think that it looks good on our body more than any other color. Very rarely, I use red. I would love to experience more art mediums
like drawing and sculpting but I simply have no time as tattooing takes me 14 hours of my day and I enjoy every second of it.
I get inspiration from nature; I think that it is the most honest thing for us artists to get inspired from. Of course that I get super excited when I see tattoo designs or other art forms which stimulates me,
but I really get most of my inspiration on a more wide aspect of just observing or thinking about nature, as mathematical as it is, as spiritual and abstract as it can be.
I always try to balance my designs as nature does
with its creations. When a design is too geometric it often creates a cold feeling; the goal is to find the right balance. When I take a new project I always want to create something that will look super cool from far away and when you will come closer it will have a lot of dimensions in it and will stimulate the viewer’s eyes in the strongest way. It doesn’t have to be too complicated; it can simply be made from one line that flows through the entire body. It’s a matter of personality: how he moves, how he talks, how he is describing himself and how he wants to be described.
I really take the time to learn those things before making a design and tattoo it. I studied computer science and psychology in my
past and I guess that the combination of those 2 fields is what really makes my designs interesting and stimulating. It is very interesting how cold lines and dots can have their own life and unique behavior. I am a very spiritual person; I traveled in India for 1 year and since then I adopted a Buddhistic way of life. On the other hand I was a computer guy that saw the world in a drastic and definite way.
What about the tattoo culture in Germany?
It is pretty hard for me to talk about the tattoo culture in Germany as I was not raised here and I am exposed to it just for around 4 years, and in that short time of being a tattooist I didn’t really meet many other tattooers and barely have contact to the tattoo world. I
start to get opened to it so I guess that if we will talk in couple of years again I could give you a better answer, but I got elected to be the newcomer of 2013 in Germany, so I can really say that people here are very open minded to see other designs of tattoos and appreciate it, what actually was a bit surprise for me as well. Suddenly I get recognized as a big talent and get emails from costumers from around the world. Yesterday I had a customer that
traveled here from the north part of china to get tattooed. These moments make me feel so thankful for the trust that those customers gives me and fills me with excitement and motivation to create a better design than before and to challenge myself more and push the envelope more. It fills me with more and more love for tattooing
and those things are only possible (in my eyes) when you don’t have the border between a customer and a tattooer. I understood pretty quick that there is no other way to learn tattooing than to really dedicate yourself to it, so I really choose to destroy the border between me and my customers completely and to make it as intimate as possible and as effective as possible. I never tattoo the same design, I don’t tattoo when I don’t feel a positive connection to the
customer, I don’t make designs before, I do everything together with my clients and takes them as an active part in the tattooing process. I found out that it is the most honest way to do this process. I guess that it was like that for so many years everywhere on this planet, but I think that this is something that we lost in the western world as it comes to tattooing. There is nothing wrong with going to a shop and choose a tattoo design from a book or a flash, but there is just another spiritual way to do it which is longer, more abstract and takes
more energy and trust.
I am always open for collaborations with other artists, not just tattooers, as I think that this is a major thing when talking
about development art, instead of repeating the same designs, making more interesting projects with artists around the world.
For me, art is all about sharing and creating new stimulations to people’s senses. As for tattooing, that is the biggest challenge, as
your creation at the end of the day is so permanent and immortal and it is not even yours, when that person walks out of your studio, you might never see him again. You are one moment everything, the other nothing. You have just one chance for couple of hours to put your design on him. Every time that he will look at himself he will see.
In my opinion, the problem with the art world is that there are a lot of artists which enjoy the title of being an artist much more than actually fulfill their duty as an artist and develop themselves artistically which is a never-ending process. There is a very thin border in which I always try to stay behind, as it comes to take the appreciations and endless compliments of people to my art and not raising my ego on it as I think that an artist that has a strong connection to his ego simply stops to develop. My goal is to develop more and more as I am very far away from where I want to be artistically.
As I never had any art education I can’t really draw as efficient as other tattoo artists. I cover that with a lot of computerized designs that I make with strong passion, but I would love to develop my drawing skills more by doing more organic motives like animals and Buddhistic figures. I think that those motives work amazingly well with geometric forms and patterns and create a nice atmosphere when used in the right way. The good part of being a non educational artist is that I am not really patterned to create something defined as ‘art’ that a lot of educated artists feels comfortable with. For me to create lines that flows all over someone’s back is easier than to draw something defined like a traditional anchor and place it on the body
and being satisfied with it, as weird as it may sound.
How would you describe your aesthetics?
It is hard for me to define my tattoo style as a certain style. But as weird and minimalist as it is, shouldn’t be categorized into a certain conventional style. I actually started to make those designs because it was weird for me that people try to categorize tattoos and other art forms. Sometimes people waste more energy when they stand in front of an art creation by trying to understand to which style instead of enjoying the endless opportunity of having something undefined. I could say that I have that split into my designs, just like in my personality; I make those art minimalist lines – the computer kid inside me, and very detailed Mandala – the spiritual man inside me.
I get a lot of requests from people that had never been tattooed before. Most of these people saw my work in the media and liked it, because in their eyes it is not in the same pattern as tattooing is. They see it more as an art form than as the conventional way of seeing tattoos. And this makes me love tattooing more and more, when I succeed to open more and more people to tattooing. When you will ask those people about tattoos, the first thing that they will think about is skulls, roses, anchors and so on. I really think it’s really necessary to show and to talk as much as possible about modern-undefined-category-
tattooing because, as much modern as it is, it’s closer to the source of tattooing with its aim. And that’s my trigger when writing this interview: to open as many peoples’ eyes to the beauty art of tattooing. My little problem is that I am a shy person and one of the reasons to give interviews is because there are some interesting aspects in my story that I am sure that will affect other people emotionally.
What advice can you give to tattoo artists who are just starting out?
I know how hard it is to learn how to tattoo, but it’s possible. It’s not necessarily to be hard years of apprenticeship; it is more about how you really want it and how much you are willing to sacrifice for it. We dream of something, but most of us think that it is impossible to achieve it, so they give up before even trying.
And if I could manage to be a tattoo artist that people actually travel to get tattooed from, then really, everyone can be whatever they want. You just have to dream and to fight for it! Actually if not fighting for your own dreams, what will you fight for?